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Newly Discovered Palaeologan Painting of the Monastery at Dirbi in Georgia

By Nino Chikhladze PhD,
The National Museum of Georgia


The main church of Dormition monastery at Dirbi is the part of the monastic complex containing the bell tower, remains of palace and outer wall. It stands on the right bank of the river Prone nearby Gori, in the eastern Georgia. The oldest construction of the three-nave church is the central one, original parish church dating between 957 and 967 as suggested by the ancient Georgian inscriptions featured on the eastern façade. They refer to the historical figures: the king of Abkhazians Leon III (957 – 967), Eristavi (duke, literally “head of nation, people”) of Kartli Ioane (2nd half of X c.), Decanus (dean) and the donors (Otinisdze, Tevdore, Guram, the unidentified persons, X c.). The aisles were built later, in the fifteenth-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (the architecture, inscriptions, stone reliefs on the façade of the monastery at Dirbi have been studied by George Gagoshidze. [G. Gagoshidze, N. Chikhladze, The Monastery of Dormition at Dirbi. Architecture, Inscriptions, Reliefs, Painting. Tbilisi, 2006, p. 8-80, in Georgian].

The murals have survived only in the central nave. Most recently, a large part of this construction was covered with plaster, while the fragments of surviving paintings were badly damaged or repainted so that the original painting was not discernible altogether. In 2001 the church prior and parishioners cleaned the western façade covered with soil, also a part of the interior plastered walls carried by water, after which two layers of the painting became visible. In 2003 the restorers of the Department of Architecture, Art and Restoration of Georgia through the financial help of the historical monuments preservation International fund of the Cartu Group, carried out conservation works. The layer of the seventeenth century painting has not survived, as it had been broken down together with plastered layer except for some small fragments being remained here and there on the walls. A badly damaged painting of the iconostas dates back to the seventeenth century too. On the other hand, the distinguished and refined painting of the Palaeologan style coming from the earlier epoch has been preserved in a good state. Through the following features of artistic style: soft colorist modeling of volumes, spatial relationship of architectural coulisses, emergence of the Hellenistic motifs in the figures of secondary importance - the older painting of Dirbi should be dated no later than from the middle of the fourteenth century.

The late thirteenth century is the period of fundamental changes in the history of Georgian monumental painting. There comes to end the classic age of the eleventh-thirteenth century magnificent murals, the place of which gradually is taken by those of the Palaeologan artistic style formed in the spiritual centers of Byzantium - Constantinople and Thessalonica and rapidly spread across the Orthodox countries of the Byzantine area.

Already at the first stage of the establishment of the Palaeologan manner distinguished by its aesthetic ideals and artistic means, there appear in Georgia the monuments of painting revealing side by side with the centers of the metropolis, highly artistic traits of developed Palaeologan style. This style is found in the south-east chapel of the main church at Gelati (1291-1293) in Western Georgia, near Kutaisi; in the south-west chapel of the church of Dormition at Khobi (13th –14th centirues, Western Georgia,) as well as in the illustrations of the Mockvi Gospel (Q - 902) dated by 1300. However, some other paintings done by that time evince a certain closeness to those of Trebizond, a peripheral city of Byzantium neighboring Georgia. At the same time, however, had been produced the monuments which follow the traditions of classical painting, although their artistic treatment nearly hasn’t been touched by the Palaeologan style. At this early stage a general artistic manner of Georgian monumental painting is characterized by diversity and somewhat “variegated” air, although by the mid fourteenth century there were executed significant patterns of painting bearing the elements of developed Palaeologan artistic style. Some of them are distinguished by flexible and subtle academic line drawing as well as refined color scheme (the churches of Dormition of Virgin Mary at Likhne and Martvili (,middle of the 14th century, Western Georgia), the church of Transfiguration at Zarzma in South Georgia (14th century), whereas others are rendered with cooler colors, expressive design and manneristic line treatment (the church of St. George at Ubisi). All these monuments are scattered over western and southern Georgia, on ground of which, the Palaeologan style was considered in the studies of the seventies of the last century to be spread mostly throughout the provinces of Georgia free from Mongol invasions and close to the Byzantine Empire [T. Virsaladze, The Main Stages of Development of Georgian Medieval Mural Painting, II International Symposium of Georgian Art, (Tbilisi, 1977), p.20 (in Russian)]. The murals of the monastery of Dormition at Dirbi, recently discovered in the central part of Georgia, may suggest that the Palaeologan style was rooted in this region of the country as well. Its existence makes evident that artistic innovations originated from the advanced cultural centers of Byzantium, despite the embarrassing political and economic situation of Georgia, seem to be as organic to its central region, as to the western and southern provinces of the country. Here too is obvious to the eye a general trend of development of the Palaeologan artistic style introduced into the early fifteenth century Kartli (eastern region of Georgia ) through the patterns executed in varied artistic manner: the painting of the church at Nabakhtevi (the 30ies of the 15th century, Eastern Georgia) which is characterized by vivid color, reserved emotions and sharp line drawing, should have been influenced by the murals of the church of Savior at Tsalenjikha (1384 – 1396, Western Georgia) painted by Cyr Manuel Eugenikus, an artist from Constantinople, whereas the figures of the monastery at Thiri (,the early 15th century, Eastern Georgia) with its sanctuary conch composition being similar to that of Dirbi, is worked in darkened colors, weighty volumes of figures and sharp highlights system bearing the elements of rigorous academism of the Late Palaeologan art that is echoed on its side in the conch painting of the church at Alaverdi (Eastern Georgia) dating from the same time-period 15th century. This evidence once more supports the opinion elaborated in Georgian Art History studies about that although being revealed through its varied aspects independently of political situation alterations taking place from the Early Middle Ages through the classic age and more lately, at the period of political disintegration, culture was evolving within general trend all over Georgia.>>


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